Driven (2001)

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He’s a younger, better you. Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) is an up-and-coming young star of the open-wheel circuit known as Champ Car, but he’s slipping in the rankings as the championships loom. Under pressure from his promoter brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard) and wheelchair-bound team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds), Jimmy is given a mentor – Joe Tanto (Stallone), a legendary former CART racer whose career and marriage to Cathy (Gina Gershon) were destroyed by a tragic accident. Joe has to earn the rookie’s trust, while attempting a career comeback following years of retirement, dealing with persistent reporter Lucretia Clan (Stacy Edwards), and seeing Cathy, now married to rival racer Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente). Meanwhile, Jimmy is pursuing Sophia (model Estella Warren), the girlfriend of top driver Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and there’s a journalist (Stacy Edwards) following everyone around the place in search of a scoop for her season-long coverage … Fans of Formula One racing will have spotted Stallone lurking in the team areas in the late 90s, attempting to get top-secret information for a biography of Ayrton Senna, killed while driving for Williams in 1994. He abandoned that idea when he got nowhere and decided to go his own way in an action drama set in Champ Car, albeit with guest spots from some of my own sporting heroes (Jacques Villeneuve! Juan Pablo Montoya!). As an F1 nut (or petrolhead) there is nothing more exciting on this good earth than watching a live race:  this consigns the danger into a raft of effects and no matter how impressive they cannot compete with the real thing. There are also some geographical issues:  for F1 fans the great races are the European classics at Monaco, Monza and Spa.  This was shot at Long Beach, Chicago, Florida, Canada and Japan. Stallone is of course starring in this Renny Harlin-directed epic, with real-life NASCAR enthusiast Burt Reynolds co-starring, (but in a wheelchair, recalling F1 team owner Frank Williams) and in a nod to his own epic lifestsyle, he comments of the journalist pursuing them, She’s doing an exposé on male dominance in sports. More of this ironic dialogue would have enhanced the fast-cutting and action sequences which don’t dwell on the ever-present danger of death in a tangle of metal – here the outcomes from a crash are minimised to a broken ankle. It’s never going to get to the root of what makes drivers do what they do despite the tagline What Drives You? but there’s a nice sense of jeopardy, coming to terms with the past and some terrific racing – even a completely implausible episode through night-time traffic in Chicago. As if! That’s movies for ya. The best motor racing movie is still Grand Prix;  and the best film about Senna would take devastating form in the titular documentary. Stallone wrote the screenplay from an original story by Jan Skrentny &  Neal Tabchnick. Glad you stuck around

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Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)

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Aka Maniacs on WheelsNow listen, you little flash boy, I’m getting tired of you and your attitude. In late 30s Britain Bill Fox (Dirk Bogarde) is a bored factory worker who loses his job and starts winning speedway competitions. He meets glamorous society woman Dorothy (Moira Lister) who introduces him to a new and exciting social circle and Bill quickly forgets his working class roots, changing his image and his loyalties. But when his brother is off fighting in Spain, distressing his mother (Thora Hird), he finally comes to his senses and eventually becomes disillusioned with the Mayfair scene.  He marries Pat (Renee Asherson) the sister of his Aussie team mate, Lag Gibbon (Bill Owen). He tries to form a riders union to ensure families are financially secure should an accident occur on the track, which angers his sponsor Rowton (Sid James). Pat tries to get Bill to pack up racing and open a garage, but Bill refuses and she leaves him. WW2 arrives and Bill enlists as a motorcycle despatch rider but after the years of conflict, Bill is left with a dilemma, should he make a racing comeback or go straight and get back together with his one true love? When they meet at a solicitor’s office it’s to discuss a divorce  …. They want to see you swept up into little piceces. Bogarde was in just his second film and was already creating a unique screen persona in the realm of British cinema if he doesn’t have quite the technique yet to make this work.  This unusual melodrama has a gritty feel in the motorcycle sequences (director Jack Lee was a documentary maker) but it doesn’t hold up as a class analysis, which is the other side of the narrative.  Adapted by William Rose (with contributions from Lee and additional dialogue by Jack Clifford) from the novel by Montagu Slater, it becomes a kind of study of masculinity, before, during and after World War 2 and Bogarde’s Bill Fox evolves, becoming a vector for a kind of political consciousness. The sight of Bogarde with a dodgy spiv-like moustache when he’s mingling with the upper classes and decked out in a trenchcoat is something to behold, but so too is his wedding breakfast later, when he makes a pro-union speech, ensuring alienation from Rowton. His physicality is probably the most fascinating aspect of this early star performance although his well-educated accent doesn’t add up. The business side of this sport does not come off well in the story nor does it flinch from the dangers of track racing, with a nasty accident filmed with as much detail was was possible (or permissible) and the effects on Lag’s mental health held to account when he winds up brain-damaged and ‘nervous’ at a psychiatric hospital. Fox’s attempts to find gainful employment after the war must have struck a chord with many men returning from combat. There are interesting performances here with Hird doing a great job as Ma Fox, even if she’s decades too young, Cyril Cusack playing fellow soldier Duggie Lewis and Bonar Colleano as the decent American on the scene (that accent!). An intriguing entry in British cinema and a must for Bogarde completionists.  The title of course comes from Waltzing Matilda, which is used as a cue in Bernard Stevens’ score. Produced by Ian Dalrymple. How do you like it out there in the rain?

Semi-Tough (1977)

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All you care about is fucking and football. Quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and wide receiver Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are professional football players who share a lush Miami apartment with multiply-divorced Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the pretty young daughter of their team’s owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). When Barbara develops feelings for Shake and the two begin a relationship, he insists that she join him at B.E.A.T., a New Age training programme run by the shady Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convy). His conversion to the EST-type belief  gives him more confidence but causes a rift in the cosy ménage à trois and Billy Clyde makes a play for Barbara himself. Meanwhile, there’s a big game coming up … We don’t like football that much. We just like taking showers with niggers. Rowdy, wildly provocative and profane, this satire of the business of football and the men who play it and the people around them stands out in the careers of the cast, the director (Michael Ritchie) and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, adapting Dan Jenkins’ best-selling novel (Ring Lardner Jr. had his name taken off the credits). It’s not all about Burt, but it might well be, even in one of the most likable ensembles you’ll ever see with charm just pouring off the screen. In real life Reynolds was a college ball player when an accident derailed his promising career. He invested in Tampa Bay’s (doomed USFL) team and his characterisation is partly based on Hall of Famer Don Meredith who played for the Dallas Cowboys in the Sixties and became a sportscaster with a taste for double entendres and worked as a TV and film actor. (North Dallas Forty features a quarterback believed to be based upon him). The rhythm of the script plays to Reynolds’ skills – an easy swagger, a  taste for deadly put-downs and immense charisma. The chemistry with Kristofferson and Clayburgh automatically eases the audience into the pro ball world and the ribald humour is offset by inspired slapstick. Preston is tremendous as the addled Big Ed creeping and crawling on the floor in the name of Movagenics, his newfound religion:   You outta line with gravity, Billy Clyde. That’s your trouble! Offensive, wildly funny and masterfully controlled, this is one of the best films of the Seventies and even with that cast (including Lotte Lenya, Richard Masur, Brian Dennehy and Carl Weathers), Reynolds is just outstanding in a story that is hugely generous to its characters. When Billy Clyde assuages the feelings of a matronly woman who thinks her size makes her unattractive to him, he’s so sweet and kind you believe what he tells her: There’s nothing sexier in the world than a woman who knows she’s a real woman. Bernstein, who turned 99 last month and was one of the victims of the blacklist, provides a script that is perfect for the times with the narcissistic worlds of self-improvement and therapy in his sights (the energy field, not just the football field, natch). Directed with verve by Michael Ritchie.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

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You will not take this from me baby!  The Miami Sharks, a once-great American football team are struggling to make the 2001 Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA) playoffs.  They are coached by thirty-year veteran Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has fallen out of favour with young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) who inherited the team from her father, and offensive coordinator and D’Amato’s expected successor Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). In the thirteenth game of the season, both starting quarterback and team captain Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini (Pat O’Hara) are injured and forced to leave the field. The desperate Sharks call on ambitious third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to replace them. A nervous Beamen makes a number of errors and fails to win the game for the Sharks, but he plays well and gains confidence. Rooney vows to make it back by the playoffs, with D’Amato promising to not give up on him….  Holy mackerel now that’s what I call football!  Adapted from the book On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive  end Pat Toomay, this gets a typically robust treatment by writer/director Oliver Stone, who appears in the small role of TV commentator, giving a running narrative on the moves. There are lots of other big names including Jim Brown (what a second act!). If Pacino is a highly unlikely coach, he gets his boo ya moment with more than one big speech which is such a part of his repertoire (since Dog Day Afternoon and latterly in Scent of a Woman) but this was a role that should have been Burt Reynolds’ (Florida! Football!).  Pacino gets his Pacino moments, loud and soft, and a halfhearted romance with a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley) who wants to talk football post-coitally with this man who’s given up wife and family for the game, but she deflects his relationship overtures and always charges. However it’s a great ensemble:  Diaz is fine as the young woman trying to make her mark in a sport where her father’s rule was firmly based on friendship but times have changed; her mother’s (Ann-Margret) a lush; Christina wants the Sharks leading again, even if that means giving up Cappy, who gets another chance to be the hero leading the team – down on his luck after a horrible accident in the first sequence. With Willie breaking the rules to get ahead and butting heads with Tony, Dr Mandrake concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury, Cappy battling his wife (Lauren Holly) who wants him to keep playing, and Christina planning on offloading the team, this conforms to the playbook of most sports movies with all the storylines converging in Tony and how he responds to the pressures exerted in every direction. The medical subplot with internist Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine) discovering that unscrupulous team physician Dr Mandrake (James Woods, reuniting with Stone long after Salvador) is concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury and with Christina’s collusion raises the issue of concussion in sport and its long-term outcomes.  Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.  That’s football. That’s all it is.  Beneath all the gut-busting aggression, the injuries, the quarrels, the deceptions, the betrayals and the on-field activities, this long loud movie has a great structure, with wonderful exchanges exhibiting the different philosophies. Willie goes against the playbook to achieve victory;  Tony is loyal to Cappy who knows he’s had it but plays along;  Christina is in it for money, having forgotten the roots of the team and she has a sharp learning curve that she cannot anticipate.  All the plot threads unite in those final seconds in the brutal race against time on the countdown clock. How apposite that the film within a film when Tony is serving Willie home-cooked dinner should be Ben-Hur:  the following year John Logan would write Gladiator.  The editing and sound mixing is second to none:  the gloss and wham bam and contrasting musical choices (Tony’s cool jazz vs Willie’s rap) eventually give way to something unified, as the theme of team building suggests. If this doesn’t entirely play fair – that twist ending unwinds over the lengthy credits sequence – the gamesmanship does leave a certain satisfaction and don’t say you weren’t warned by the dialogue which plants the ultimate payoff:  When a man looks back on his life he should be proud of all of it

 

Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

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One of the hottest groups on the planet – they are Ever Moist! After the highs of winning the world championships, a capella group the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering there aren’t job prospects for making music with your mouth. Beca (Anna Kendrick) will not play second fiddle to a dreadful rapper and gives up her producing job.  Inadvertently reunited by Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who mistakenly believes everyone is happy in their jobs, they jump at a chance to go on an overseas USO tour courtesy of Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) neglectful naval commander father. When they arrive at their departure point they find out from John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Elizabeth Banks) who are filming them for a documentary that they are now in a competition once again. They have come together to make some music in some glamorous locations but find themselves up against a group that play instruments as well as sing. Beca still wants to DJ and sees an opportunity when DJ Khaled materialises with his entourage but when Fat Amy’s errant criminal dad Fergus (John Lithgow) surfaces the entire group are put in danger because he wants to access an account she didn’t even know she had … I’ve been a very naughty girl Turnip Top! The relationship between cosy crim and Fat Amy, his every arrival signalled by her pink bunny rabbit, is at the heart of the ‘plot,’ which is otherwise paper-thin if fun. The last in a franchise, this peters out but with some witty moments, usually connected with Wilson and her deadly put-downs. The concluding action sequence is a blast. Naturally the finale is a performance. Despite the wonderful locations, the cinematography feels cheap and doesn’t take total advantage of the visual possibilities, more like a home movie tape of highlights which echoes the rudimentary storytelling, held together by some fun performances. All that’s left is to weigh up how much smaller Kendrick can get, and how much bigger Wilson can become… Written by Kay Cannon and Mike White and directed by Trish Sie.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.

 

 

Game Night (2018)

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Any of you fucking pricks move, I’m gonna execute every motherfucking last one of you!  Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an insanely competitive couple who can’t conceive. Their weekly couples game night gets kicked up a notch when Max’s Wall St venture fund owner brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town and  arranges a murder mystery party including fake thugs and federal agents. It certainly beats Scrabble and Pictionary. And his house is amazing! And there’s a Stingray on the line! Annie finally realises where Max’s anxiety originated when they meet. When Brooks gets kidnapped, it’s all supposed to be part of the game but then it gets very real indeed. As the competitors set out to solve the mystery, they start to learn that neither the game nor Brooks are what they seem to be. They soon find themselves in over their heads as each twist leads to another unexpected turn and that’s a real gun that Annie finds herself firing and rich folk really do get poor people to play Fight Club … Mark Perez’ inventive script has a lot of movie references (albeit our thoughts naturally turn to that great, dark film The Game) and gets a highly energetic workout from co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. The alternate couples function as satellites of the central couple who are like a tech-friendly Nick and Nora, solving a mystery they don’t actually know is happening around them. Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris are high school sweethearts but she fesses up to a one-night stand with a famous film star;  Billy Magnussen is the low IQ guy with a thing for idiot blondes but tonight he shows up with his super smart boss, Sharon Horgan, who’s Irish, not British, and no, it’s not the same thing, she keeps insisting; and next door neighbour, cop Jesse Plemons, lives with his dog Bastien since Max and Annie’s friend Debbie divorced him and they never invite him around on his own, cos, well, he’s plain weird. And he’s PO’d at being excluded. Just when the couples – and we – think the game within a game within a game is over, well, it’s not. There’s more. All of this is served up by sharply defined characters so that we believe all the plot turns and the lines are brilliantly delivered.  The action is flagged up by pieces on game boards, the titles are fantastic and the post-credits sequence is a winner too. A zippy and blackly funny entertainment, performed with vim and astonishing comic timing. You’re like a double threat. Brains … and you’re British!

Caddyshack (1980)

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It’s in the hole!  Teenager Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works as a caddy at the snob-infested Bushwood Country Club to raise money for his college education. In an attempt to gain votes for a college scholarship reserved for caddies, Noonan volunteers to caddy for a prominent and influential club member (Ted Knight). He struggles to prepare for the high pressure Caddy Day golf tournament while absorbing New Age advice from wealthy golf guru Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) and greenkeeper Carl (Bill Murray) deals with a pesky gopher who insists on popping up at the most inopportune moments … From one-liners, crude triadic exchanges, skits, long payoffs and slapstick sequences of inspired genius, this is practically the Sophocles of Eighties comedy. In a weekend of sport – Wentworth! The Monaco Grand Prix! The Indy 500! Champions League Final! The Paris Open’s first day! – take a break from all the high-falutin’ gentlemanly point-scoring and watch one of the funniest low brow films ever made! Written by Douglas Kenney, Brian Doyle-Murray and director Harold Ramis. These performers were all at the height of their considerable comic powers and it’s a scream. OMG I love it!

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There Is Another Sun (1951)

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Aka Wall of Death. Lillian, a stranded chorus-girl (Susan Shaw) meets reckless motorcycle stunt rider ‘Racer’ (Maxwell Reed) and promising young boxer Maguire (Laurence Harvey) and joins up with them at a travelling funfair. Maguire looks to Racer as a kind of daredevil mentor and as Lillian comes between them they put aside their rivalry to steal from their boss …  Lewis Gilbert directed from a screenplay by Guy Morgan and it admirably sustains an atmosphere of seediness and danger that we have come to expect from carny films like Nightmare Alley. Harvey and Reed don’t offer their best performances but they are indicative of nascent British film acting at the time and such a physical contrast – Harvey with his pulchritudinous blond brow and Reed with a kind of saturnine viciousness – that their relationship is the story’s anchor psychologically and performance-wise. Shaw makes nice as the decent girl and Harvey’s offscreen love interest Hermione Baddeley does a good turn as a fortune teller. You don’t need her to tell you that with that Wall of Death things won’t end well.